Vikings

Sunday’s Game Features Two Superstars From A Busted WR Draft Class

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA TODAY Sports)

The 2020 NFL Draft was loaded with talent. From a treasure chest of franchise quarterbacks at the top (Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert) to elite defensive players throughout (Chase Young, A.J. Terrell, Antoine Winfield Jr.) and some late-round gems in between (Gabriel Davis, Darnell Mooney), this draft is responsible for several household names.

Coming into that year’s draft, the biggest impact was supposed to be at receiver, 13 of which receivers were taken in the first two rounds – the most in NFL history at the time. With several collegiate stars available, teams were salivating at the chances of adding an alpha to their receiver room. Four years later, though, two players are left standing – Justin Jefferson and CeeDee Lamb.

Lamb was the third receiver off the board and has begun to find his stride with the Dallas Cowboys. Jefferson went five picks later and promptly became one of the best receivers in the NFL. Both players have taken different paths to get where they are, but they also rose above what turned out to be a minefield.

Henry Ruggs III was the first receiver taken. Ruggs ran the 40-yard dash in 4.27 seconds and was a key figure in Alabama’s dominant offense. With teams obsessed with finding the next Tyreek Hill, the Las Vegas Raiders pulled the trigger, selecting him 12th overall.

Ruggs battled injuries to post a modest stat line in his rookie season (26 catches, 452 yards, two TD) but never hit his projected ceiling. Just as he was starting to show progress, Ruggs was involved in a collision while driving with a blood alcohol level of .161 and killed the other vehicle’s driver. It’s unknown whether he would have fulfilled his potential had he not been responsible for the tragedy. However, it was unlikely that he would become a game-changing receiver.

Ruggs’ college teammate, Jerry Jeudy, was the next receiver off the board. His route running was immaculate at Alabama, and he projected as the deep threat that Jefferson has become early in his career. The Denver Broncos took the chance, selecting Jeudy with the 15th-overall pick. But he also hasn’t hit his ceiling.

Jeudy was a victim of poor quarterback play as the Broncos shuffled between Drew Lock, Case Keenum, and Russell Wilson. He also has battled injuries, which may have hindered his ability to get open. Denver shopped Jeudy at the trade deadline, which is never a good sign for one’s career.

Lamb was the next receiver to come off the board before the Philadelphia Eagles were on the clock at 21st overall. The entire world knew that Philadelphia would take a receiver after age caught up with Alshon Jeffery, and Nelson Agholor turned out to be a bust. The Eagles settled on Jalen Reagor, who wound up being an even bigger bust.

In two seasons with the Eagles, Reagor caught 64 passes for 695 yards and three touchdowns, but Jefferson’s success drew Philadelphia’s ire. The Eagles eventually traded Reagor to the Vikings on Aug. 31 for a 2023 seventh-round pick and a conditional 2024 fourth-round pick, adding to the irony of this draft class.

The rest of the receivers selected in the first two rounds have seen success, but with caveats. The San Francisco 49ers took Brandon Aiyuk 25th overall, but he has been in and out of Kyle Shanahan’s dog house. Tee Higgins (34th overall) has become a reliable target for Joe Burrow, but Ja’Marr Chase has overshadowed him.

Michael Pittman (34th overall) has suffered from a carousel of aging quarterbacks in Indianapolis. Laviska Shenault (42nd overall) turned out to be a gadget player. K.J. Hamler (46th overall) is reserved for a WR3 role, and Chase Claypool (49th overall) was just traded to the Chicago Bears.

Van Jefferson (57th overall) and Denzel Mims (59th overall) haven’t done much as professionals, leaving Jefferson and Lamb as the two standouts.

What’s more incredible is that both players landed with their teams in unpredictable circumstances. Heading into the 2020 draft, the Cowboys were loaded at receiver with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Despite other needs, Jerry Jones was enamored with Lamb and almost ran to the podium to take him 17th overall.

The Cowboys wound up trading Cooper last offseason due to salary cap issues, and Gallup tore his ACL last January. Lamb was vaulted to the No. 1 target in Dallas and has responded, catching 53 passes for 706 yards and five touchdowns in nine games this season. He is on pace to beat the 79 catches, 1,102 yards, and six touchdowns from last season and is starting to become one of the most-feared receivers in the NFL.

While Jefferson had more immediate success, his arrival in Minnesota was just as surprising. The Vikings entered that offseason with one of the league’s best receiver duos in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. One tweet from Diggs later, the Vikings traded him to the Buffalo Bills, and the Vikings had the 22nd-overall pick.

There were still obstacles before the Vikings could type “Justin Jefferson” in the Zoom chat. We talked about Philadelphia’s not-so-secret need to take a receiver, and there was a chance that any of the teams above them could have seen Jefferson as an elite target. Even a team like the Green Bay Packers, who traded up for Jordan Love at 25th overall, could have been even more aggressive to land Jefferson.

They also could have caved into Mike Zimmer’s demands for a starting corner and taken Jeff Gladney at 22, hoping Jefferson would fall down the board. Thankfully, the two laughed when the Eagles took Reagor and gleefully sent their emails.

All of this brings us to Sunday when both players could once again prove to be the toast of the 2020 receiver class.

The Vikings will be without Cameron Dantzler and Akayleb Evans, leaving Andrew Booth Jr. and Duke Shelley to play across from Patrick Peterson. Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore must be salivating after watching Booth break out a Backstreet Boys spin move trying to guard Diggs last week and seeing Shelly potentially get away from pass interference on Dawson Knox.

With Chandon Sullivan grading 109th out of 125 qualifying corners in Pro Football Focus’s coverage grades this season, the chances of Lamb having a good matchup are staggering.

That’s not to say he will have the best matchup on the field. Jefferson is starting to forge a dark horse MVP campaign after his 10-catch, 193-yard performance in Buffalo and is on pace to become the NFL’s first 2,000-yard receiver.

The odds of Jefferson slowing down on Sunday are not good. Top corner Trevon Diggs ranks 22nd in PFF’s coverage grades but is eighth among qualifiers with 419 yards allowed. Anthony Brown has had similar issues, ranking ninth in the NFL with 415 yards allowed.

Getting after Kirk Cousins is one way to neutralize poor coverage, and Dallas ranks fifth by blitzing 30.2% of the time this season. But blitzing leaves the corners on an island, and if Jefferson gets open, he’ll face a secondary that features Donovan Wilson, who ranks 16th with an 18.9 missed tackle percentage, and Malik Hooker, who has 36 missed tackles. This should create plenty of opportunities after the catch and send Jefferson off to the races.

Other factors could play into Sunday’s game, such as the porous Dallas run defense and an improving Vikings pass rush, but Jefferson and Lamb should steal the headlines. It’s a matchup we thought we would see multiple times a year when this class was coming out. Instead, this showdown will be a special occasion.

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